[R.G.: The third of my RPG Blog Carnival posts; the first two are here and here. This is a little less put together than some other posts. I had a number of thoughts on the subject and as disjointed as they seem to me I wanted to get them down. After all, I can always follow up with a more coherent post later, one of the joys of blogging.]
A sample question on the November RPG Blog Carnival asked, “If one of your players has had a bad week, do you consciously twist the game in a direction they will like to get them ‘in the mood’ or permit them to blow off steam – rather than letting it interfere with the game in some more substantial way?” That got me thinking along a number of avenues: mental health, self-care, what purposes RPGs can serve beyond entertainment. So let me commence to ramble and we’ll see where we end up.
My initial reaction is, yes, of course I do. Beyond simple entertainment (and I’m not knocking that, it’s a huge part of why I game), for me there is an important social component to gaming that sometimes get overlooked. When I get together with one of my regular groups I’m also spending time with friends, even if that friendship primarily exists around that table and nowhere else. And I want my friends to be happy, so if I can use the game we’re playing to let them escape their problems for a bit and blow off steam, why wouldn’t I? Don’t we play these games to be heroes? Where’s the harm in sliding the spotlight their way and letting their character shine when the player needs a hero the most?
I briefly considered that con games and other one-off sessions are the exception to worrying about this, but that’s not actually true in my experience. Whether I’m running or playing a game at a convention, I’m usually paying more attention to the mood of the others at the table. There’s a saying about con games that goes something like, “Every table has an asshole. If you can’t spot them, it might be you.” I’ve taken that to heart over the years, and I try to be very pro-active (with varying levels of success) about not being the asshole; more, of trying to be the anti-asshole and protecting the rest of the game from the asshole, once identified. Because this particular group is together for only a short period of time, I tend to work hard to make sure they have the best time possible, doubly so if any of the players show up in a bad mood. The games are why you go to a gaming convention, so if they aren’t fun you’ve pretty much lost out on the reason for being there.
Now this all works great for the players at the table, but it can be difficult as the game master to show yourself some self-care during a session to alleviate a bad day. Sometimes just running the game is enough, but occasionally you might need more than that. Maybe you need your hero moment and that can be difficult to pull off. In many games, for your NPCs to shine the characters (and by extension the players) need to fail. That can be fun every now and then as a dramatic beat to your campaign, but if you make a habit of crushing the characters on a regular basis you’ll soon find you don’t have anyone who’ll play with you.
My solution was to slowly, over time, change what I considered to be “winning” as a GM. The adversarial approach was great through junior high and high school, but as I got older I figured out that if I wanted the players to come back for more than a few sessions I had to stop thinking about beating their characters. Instead, I tied my wins to the player experience. For example, if the party encounters a ghost my win is not tied to the ghost beating the characters, but to making sure the players are scared of character death throughout the encounter. When they do beat the ghost they get to win for surviving and overcoming the obstacle, and I get to win because they felt they were one step from doom the entire time. Tying my win condition to the experience my players have has the benefit of my putting the focus on their entertainment and enjoyment, which I think is where it should reside. This doesn’t mean I don’t take a little pleasure when I manage to take down a character (I’m not made of stone), but it isn’t what drives my campaign design any more.
Rambling over. I hope this was somewhat interesting or helpful. What do you think? Do you adjust your game to help out players who feel down? Do you worry about mental health in your games at all? Let’s chat in the comments.